October 28: Onthis day in 1958 Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’sLast Tape was first performed. According to the authorized biography (Damned to Fame, James Knowlson, 1996),the play was one of the author’s favorite works—a “nicely sad andsentimental” play about which he felt “as an old hen with her lastchick,” Beckett wrote in his letters at the time, but not likely toachieve the fame of Waiting for Godotand Endgame: “It will be likethe little heart of an artichoke served before the tripes with excrement ofHamm and Clov. People will say: good gracious, there is blood circulating inthe old man’s veins after all, one would never have believed it; he must begetting old.”
For decades, as an attempt to document and decipher hislife, the aging Krapp has been making a tape recording on his birthday. On thissixty-ninth birthday, as he plays back “Box three, spool five,” heall but gags on the precious thoughts of “that stupid bastard I tookmyself for thirty years ago”:
What I suddenly saw then was this, that the belief I hadbeen going on all my life, namely—(Krappswitches off impatiently, winds tape forward, switches on again)—greatgranite rocks the foam flying up in the light of the lighthouse and thewind-gauge spinning like a propeller, clear to me at last that the dark I havealways struggled to keep under is in reality my most—(Krapp curses, switches off, winds tape forward…)
In some ways, Beckett’s last years were as Krapp’s—ahopeless compulsion to articulate what words couldn’t ever seem to capture, to”fail better.” One letter from 1983: “I remember an entry inKafka’s diary. ‘Gardening. No hope for the future.’ At least he could garden.There must be words for it. I don’t expect ever to find them.” And anotherletter several months later: “The wall won’t recede and I have no reversegears. Can’t turn either.” At about his time he was writing What Where, the play that turned out tobe his last, and which ended in tape recorder fashion:
That is all.
Make sense who may.
I switch off.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.